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Analysis: Optimists, pessimists would have different views on Minnesota’s football season

Minnesota running back Rodney Smith is a key factor in the Golden Gophers’ offense. (Paul Battaglia / Associated Press)
Minnesota running back Rodney Smith is a key factor in the Golden Gophers’ offense. (Paul Battaglia / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – We all know that there are optimists in life who see the world for what it can become, and pessimists who see it for what it fails to be.

There are some world-is-ending nihilists, too, but they don’t care about college football and so we don’t care about them.

In the sporting world, we finally have a litmus test you can use to test your friends and figure out whether or not you belong to the same tribe. Just ask them what they thought of Minnesota’s football season.

The optimist will tell you that the Golden Gophers, who finished with a good-but-not-great 8-4 record, were just a couple of plays a way from being in the College Football Playoffs conversation. And he or she would be right. Minnesota did not lose a game by more than a touchdown until the regular-season finale, on the road at No. 6 Wisconsin, and the Golden Gophers held a fourth quarter lead in that game.

They played good teams close – all that outrage over Penn State not making the playoffs was on behalf of a team that only beat Minnesota by three at home. And they did what they had to against the bad teams, winning by an average of 14.8 points during a four-game winning streak against Big Ten teams.

But those pessimists have some points, too.

Minnesota did not beat a single ranked team in 2016 and benefited from a Big Ten slate bereft of conference heavyweights Michigan and Ohio State. The Golden Gophers just barely squeaked past Oregon State in the season opener, and they only beat Rutgers (2-10, 0-9 Big Ten) by two points.

The team is ranked outside the top 30 in scoring offense and scoring defense, never establishing an identity outside of a pretty decent pass defense, which recently lost multiple key players to suspension.

The Golden Gophers won eight games and qualified for a bowl game. But were they good in 2016? That’s in the eye of the beholder.

Minnesota’s 2016 schedule:

Sept. 1, vs. Oregon State

The Gophers hung on despite three ejections in the season opener, thanks to 125 rushing yards and two scores from Rodney Smith.

Final: Minnesota 30-23

Sept. 10, vs. Indiana State

Mitch Leidner tossed four touchdown passes, two to Drew Wolitarsky as Minnesota cruised to an easy win.

Final: Minnesota 58-28

Sept. 24, vs. Colorado State

Smith and Shannon Brooks combined to rush for 184 yards and three touchdowns as the Gophers wore down the Rams late in the game.

Final: Minnesota 31-24

Oct. 1, at Penn State

Minnesota narrowly lost its first road test, as Penn State’s Saquon Barkley scored on a 25-yard touchdown run on the Nittany Lions’ first offensive play of overtime. PSU was unranked at the time, but the team and Barkley’s success would become two of the major stories of the season.

Final: Penn State 29-26 (OT)

Oct. 8, vs. Iowa

Neither offense could score easily in this grinder of a game, until Iowa’s Akrum Wadley went 54 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Final: Iowa 14-7

Oct. 15, at Maryland

Leidner was out with a concussion, so Conor Rhoda made his first start at quarterback for Minnesota. He did not have to do much, since Smith ran for 144 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Final: Minnesota 31-10

Oct. 22, vs. Rutgers

The Golden Gophers came perilously close to being Rutgers’ first Big Ten win in six attempts, only surviving thanks to Emmitt Carpenter’s 28-yard field goal with 10 seconds left.

Final: Minnesota 34-32

Oct. 29, at Illinois

Illinois turned the ball over twice early in the game, Minnesota followed with scores and the Golden Gophers cruised to a third straight win.

Final: Minnesota 40-17

Nov. 5, vs. Purdue

Smith ran for three touchdowns and Leidner added to more rushing scores himself as the Golden Gophers’ offense romped.

Final: Minnesota 44-31

Nov. 12, at No. 19 Nebraska

The Golden Gophers came up just short in their first game against a ranked opponent, as Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. came back from an injury to lead a 91-yard winning drive.

Final: Nebraska 24-17

Nov. 19, vs. Northwestern

Leidner threw his first touchdown pass in seven weeks as the Golden Gophers won their final home game.

Final: Minnesota 29-12

Nov. 26, at No. 6 Wisconsin

The Golden Gophers played well and entered the fourth quarter with a lead, but the Badgers outscored Minnesota 21-0 in the final quarter to hand the visitors their first double-digit loss all year.

Final: Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17

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